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The Safety of Pewter (Old and New)

Question from M. C.

I have an antique pewter salt shaker I bought it at an antiques store in Boston in the 1950s, and gave it to my parents then–it is old, old. I use it at the stove when I add salt rarely to food I’m cooking. Is it safe? It seems to me it has a kind of sharp smell, and I don’t know if that is lead, or tin, or the salt. Any ideas?

Debra’s Answer

Old pewter is made from tin and lead, so I would assume yours contains lead. Since there is no safe level for lead exposure, I wouldn’t use it. Even though you use it only occasionally, in a way that is worse, for the salt has contact with the pewter for a longer period, giving it more opportunity to absorb any lead that may be leaching.

Modern pewter is lead-free and safe to use. It is made from 95% tin, plus copper and antimony. According to one manufacturer, “The products are guaranteed lead-free and quite safe to be used for all kinds of food and drink.”

I noticed that most pewter websites give no information on the pewter or its contents. Warnings are still given to watch out for pewter items which may contain lead. So if you are considering a purchase of pewter, ask if it contains lead.

There is a way to tell if the pewter in question contains lead. Leaded pewter will get darker with age, and will be difficult to buff to its original shine and color. The more lead the pewter contains, the more it darkens and tarnishes with age.

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Sofa Cushions

Question from M. G.

I purchased a used sofa and would like to replace the seat cushions. What can I use instead of foam?

Debra’s Answer

You could use natural latex foam like the kind used in beds or cotton or wool batting.

Many years ago, I replaced the foam cushions on a sofa with big pillows I made from cotton canvas stuffed with organic cotton batting. It worked just fine.

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Natural and Synthetic Latex Pillows

Question from M. K.

I am thinking of buying some latex bed pillows but I know some have a mixture of natural and synthetic latex. Since you would be breathing so close to the pillow for 8 hours a day, does synthetic latex outgas?

Debra’s Answer

Home Environmental Consultant and Certified Bau-Biologist Mary Cordaro says “Yes, synthetic latex can outgass. Depending on how much synthetic latex is present, the level of outgassing will vary a great deal. If you’re sleeping directly on a synthetic latex pillow, you may be inhaling chemicals from the synthetic latex, which is not advisable, especially since the proximity of the materials and the exposure time is so lengthy. Synthetic latex is formulated with raw materials from petroleum products, which can be harmful to human health. In the United States, it is legal to claim that latex is natural even if it also contains some synthetic latex, so it’s important that you purchase your pillow from a reputable company.”

I agree with Mary’s evaluation. However, my actual personal experience with the 40% natural/60% synthetic latex strips on the wood slats under my mattress has been that I have noticed no petrochemical odor, nor have I experienced any negative health effects.

Eliana Jantz, Founder of Shepherd’s Dream, where I purchased the strips, responded to your questions with this answer: “I haven’t heard any complaints of outgassing from people who use our 40% natural/60% synthetic latex. And by now we probably have at least a hundred folks out there using it. I sleep on a bed without the latex but the guest bed has latex and I’ve never noticed any latex smell in the room where this bed is.

“We decided to use the blend because the Connecticut manufacturer the only one in United States manufacturing latex offered a 25 year warranty on the blend and only a 5 year warranty on the 100% natural latex. Besides that, there was no detectable difference in smell when we tested both samples side by side. Now, we are offering cotton covers for the latex slats so there doesn’t need to be any direct contact with the latex. The covers slip over each individual slat and makes a very nice finish.”

When I first received the strips, they had a very strong odor of the natural latex itself and no petrochemical smell. The natural odor did diminish over time. It took about six weeks before I could even have the latex in my house. Now it is fine. Occasionally I will notice a slight odor in warm weather. For this reason, I personally wouldn’t have a whole latex mattress or a latex pillow–but that’s just me personally! I see no reason why others shouldn’t use these products if they are OK with the latex.

My recommendation would be to choose natural latex if you want a latex pillow, just to be on the safe side. Or, buy a cotton or wool pillow.

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Lead on Power Cords

Question from M. M.

I just purchased a new laptop computer, made by Toshiba. In the “Resource Guide”, on both the first page and on page 29, it says

I don’t want to consider returning it because it has good quality speakers through which I, hard-of-hearing, may be able to hear. I am housebound so didn’t personally go to stores to look at computers before ordering this. Also, I already have high levels of arsenic and cadmium according to my hair analysis, so I don’t need to add lead.

Even if I could find a different cord or chose a different computer, how would I know whether or not the new cord cord contains lead? Is the lead mixed somehow combined with something in such a way that it is not readily dispersed? Why would there be lead in a plastic cord?

I suppose I could wrap it with duct tape. I can wear gloves when I handle it, but do I want this cord sitting on my desk 2 !/2 feet from my nose?

Toshiba’s corporate office seems to be in California, so maybe notifying customers was simply a legal requirement.

What can I do to protect myself from this exposure to lead?

Debra’s Answer

First, I just want to remind everyone that there is NO safe level for lead, except “none.” Zero.

I don’t think there is a danger from airborne lead dust, but I don’t know for sure. Lead is a heavy metal–a particle not a vapor, so it is unlikely that it would be released into the air from plastic but I don’t know everything!. Lead is considered to not be dangerous in paint on a wall, for example, as long as it is on the wall. But when the paint begins to peel or it is sanded or otherwise disturbed, then lead dust is released.

My husband and I discussed this and came up with two solutions. One is to wrap the cord with some other material. He said not electrical tape because it is made from PVC too. He didn’t like this idea because he thought the tape wouldn’t be flexible enough. My idea was to wrap the cord with strips of cotton cloth. I actually have a cord on a lamp that I had clamped to a shelf a few years ago. It had a black cord I didn’t like. So I had wrapped it with purple wire-reinforced ribbon and that worked just fine.

My husband preferred wearing gloves when handling the cords, but I think that is impractical.

But first, I would recommend that you test the cord to see if it actually has lead in it. There is a movement toward phasing out lead in PVC, but there is still lead in most cords. One survey found lead in 23 out of 27 cords tested. After handling the cords for only 10 seconds, fingers also tested positive for lead. To test for the presence of lead on your cables, use Lead Check swabs.

More about the warning label from Harvard University.

Unscented Talcum Powder

Question from N.M.

I have MCS, and have been unable to find unscented, fragrance-free talcum powder Note the apparent redundancy, since many products that are labeled “unscented” actually contain fragrance, sometimes appearing in the Ingredients list only as a chemical name. I would like to find a source for a safe no mica talcum that has no added fragrance. Can you help?

Debra’s Answer

I could only find unscented talcum powder one place: Birch Hill Happenings. The owner says that it is “100% pure” to the best of her knowledge. It is imported from Australia.

Talc is considered safe enough to be used as an ingredient in nearly one thousand cosmetic and bodycare products. In the past, there has been some question about its safety. It is often stated that talc contains traces of asbestos, however, eighty-five samples of talcum powder studied from 15 countries found that the main detectable mineral impurities were chlorite, mica, carbonates, quartz, and feldspars. Purity varied from 47% to 93%, with powders from Germany and USA having the highest quality. Products from Chile, France, Andorra, Portugal and Colombia were the lowest.

Dr. Hauschka products website FAQ states:

Also, you can just purchase plain cornstarch or arrowroot powder and use that.

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Nontoxic Carpet Cleaner

Question from P. A.

Due to a lack of time and energy, I’d like to hire someone to clean our carpets for us; however, I have serious concerns about the toxicity of the products used.

Do you have any suggestions? Do you know anything about ChemDry? Their website says they use “hot water extraction with the power of carbonation.” Do you know what this means?

Any help you can provide would be greatly appreciated.

Debra’s Answer

Carbonation is what makes the bubbles in club soda or any soft drink. It occurs naturally in some spring waters. To make carbonated beverages, liquid carbon dioxide is injected under pressure beneath the water in a sealed container. Each of us exhales carbon dioxide into the surrounding air every time we breathe.

Using carbonated water as a cleaning solution has been around for a long time. Once I was having lunch with my literary agent and a big New York editor at a fancy restaurant in San Francisco. I ordered an ice cream dessert that came in a pool of chocolate sauce. I put my spoon in the ice cream and the whole scoop slipped off the plate into my lap! My agent immediately ordered a bottle of club soda and the chocolate stain came right out.

ChemDry is applying this same method on a larger scale. Their website says:

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Pesticide residues in fabrics

Question from P. G.

I have all three of your books, and thoroughly enjoy your newsletters! Thank you for all you do, and for sharing it all with us out here!

I am very committed to a healthy environment–organic beds, bedding, carpet, foods–just about everything. I spend a lot of money for it. However, for my clothing, I do purchase natural fiber cotton, linen, and silk clothing, but I don’t buy it organically. And there is my dilemma. I am aware of all the pesticide use on growing cotton, but does that residue REALLY end up transferring to our bodies when we wear it as clothing? Has any conclusive study or proof of this been made?

I understand the need to pre-wash new clothing of the residues from sizing and any other “new” fabric treatments before wearing (I wash my clothes with Whole Foods brand laundry detergent along with baking soda, and use vinegar in the rinse cycle), and appreciated your advice on avoiding non-wrinkle, stain-resistant clothing (which I now do–thanks!), but haven’t completely resolved this organic cotton clothing issue.

I ordered some swatches of organic fabrics to purchase to sew (I used to sew all my clothes) and may consider that. The prices of the fabric are very reasonable. But then I just wonder: is it really a valid concern????

Debra’s Answer

I’ve already partially answered this question in Q&A: Conventional vs Organic Cotton Clothing, but I wanted to specifically answer the question “Has any conclusive study or proof of this been made?”

My experience wearing non-organic cotton clothing is that I don’t feel any residues of pesticides present. But that’s not a scientific test.

So I asked Home Environmental Consultant and Certified Bau-Biologist Mary Cordaro to comment on this, because she has experience with product testing done by laboratories in Germany that are far more sophisticated than the laboratories we have available here in the USA. Mary said, “German fabric tests on conventional cotton fabric have shown that, unlike cotton batting, pesticides are not usually present in cotton fabric. The fabric milling and production process removes the pesticides.”

I’m not concerned about health effects from pesticide residues in cotton fabrics (though they are present in cotton batting, so it would be important to get organic cotton in a mattress or pillows). We all should be concerned about the pesticides from the growing of cotton making their way into the environment (which then come back to us in soil, air, and water). But as I said before, at this time there just isn’t enough organic cotton for all of us to wear it 100% of the time. At the same time, we should each take every opportunity available to us to purchase organic cotton to support the continued growth of the industry.

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Sealing Toxic Particleboard Furniture

Question from P. N.

I have a crazy situation. I put a $500.00 deposit down on some furniture I love, but found out it’s wood veneer over fiber-board. I’ve been agonizing for a week whether to have it delivered or if I should lose my deposit, or at least some of it. My chiropractor muscle-tested me weak on formaldahyde, so it wouldn’t be a great thing, but it was on sale for a really good price, it looks great, it’s what I need, but I don’t want to get sick and I don’t want to feel hypocritical.

I found this stuff called Safe Coat which is supposed to stop most of the out-gassing but my friend says it will just slow it. Do you have any advice?

Debra’s Answer

About your furniture, I’ve used the product you mentioned. The exact product is called Safecoat Safe Seal, which is specifically designed to block formaldehyde emissions from particleboard. Not all Safecoat brand products have this ability, so be sure to get this specific product.

My experience using this product was similar to yours. Many years ago, I purchased an inexpensive dining table to use for a desk that I thought was all solid wood. When I got it home and started putting it together, I found that one essential piece on the underside was particleboard. I really needed a desk and this was the only wood table I had found that I could afford. But the smell of formaldehyde was clearly present.

So I got some Safecoat Safe Seal and completely sealed that one piece of particleboard. There was no more odor of formaldehyde and I was able to work at that desk with no reaction.

Your friend is partially right. My best recommendation is to use solid wood. The sealant will block enough formaldehyde fumes to form an effective barrier, but the particleboard beneath it will continue to outgas behind the barrier of the sealant. Over time, it may need to be reapplied. Multiple coats would give you a more complete seal. I think I applied two or three coats it was twenty years ago!.

Now, about whether you should follow through with the purchase for the reasons you stated…Even if it looks great, it’s what you need and you would lose your deposit, I wouldn’t go through with such a purchase if I knew it would harm my health. If it does affect your health, it will cost much more than your deposit to recover your health, and you will need to get rid of it anyway.

I once had a situation where I was working in a doctor’s office who treated patients who were chemically sensitive. He moved into a new office and needed to put down new flooring. I chose a flooring for him that was nontoxic, but his wife, who had an eye for decorating, wanted a different floor–one she chose for style, not safety. Well, being a good husband, he followed his wife’s advice and installed 2000 square feet of vinyl flooring. The following week he had to rip it out and install the flooring I recommended because none of his patients could come in the office! So it’s better to do it right the first time.

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Water-based Deck Finish

Question from P. S.

What do you recommend for a water-based deck finish?

Debra’s Answer

There are two types of deck finish: oil-based, which penetrates the wood, and water-based, which lies on top. This article from This Old House explains the difference and why you might want to choose one over the other based on performance.

Oil-based finishes are more toxic to apply, so I don’t recommend them.

In searching for a water-based finish, I found that not all are alike. Water-based finishes do contain fewer volatile organic chemicals VOC, but some still contain glycol, a fairly toxic solvent.

Fortuantely I was able to find two water-based acrylic wood finishes with NO hazardous ingredients listed on the Material Safety Data Sheet MSDS.

Wolman Extreme Acrylic Wood Finish can be purchased in retail stores wherever Wolman products are sold. AFM Safecoat DynoSeal needs to be ordered online.

I haven’t used either of these products, but they are the best I could find based on their ingredient data. If anyone has any personal experience using these products, send me an email and I will post your comments.

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Stainless Steel Cleaner

Question from P. S.

How can I clean stainless steel without toxic chemcials?

Debra’s Answer

No need for a commercial cleaner. You can just use that old good-for-everything standby baking soda, mixed with water to make a paste.

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